Saturday, 21 October 2017

The Irreplaceable Maureen Forrester: A Personal Tribute

In attending the Toronto Symphony's "Tribute to Maureen Forrester"
this week, I found myself taking another nostalgic trip down memory lane,
and feeling a real need to write my own personal appreciation of
this remarkable musician and her peerless art. 

So I've decided that, henceforth, I will also allow myself to write the
occasional essay on this blog which is not a review of a performance.
You could call it "broadening my base" (except that my "base" or
fundament is far broader than I would ideally like it to be already!).

I only met Maureen Forrester face to face on one occasion, but she was a performer who made it very easy to feel as if we, her audience, were her friends.  Hers was a strongly communicative art.  After some thought, I've come to the conclusion that, somehow, she managed to shift the edge of her personal space from the front of the stage to the back of the hall the moment she began to sing.  At the numerous live performances of hers which I attended, that special aura never failed to materialize -- and I haven't encountered too many other performing artists in my lifetime who could muster that kind of personal communication.

Maureen's career took off in a big way after Bruno Walter personally selected her to sing in his New York performances and recording of the Mahler Symphony No. 2 (the "Resurrection" Symphony).  That was in 1958, when I was 4 years old.  Since Walter had shared a close personal and professional friendship with Mahler himself, being coached by and performing under Walter's direction was like accessing a direct line to the composer, a line long since become inaccessible in our latter day.  On the strength of that one performance, Forrester instantly became world-renowned as one of the greatest of Mahler interpreters.  That was no exaggeration.

A decade later when I began developing a strong interest in Mahler's music, I acquired a copy of that legendary recording.  I still have it in my collection.  The sound is a bit grainy by modern standards, the bigger climaxes have had to be damped down in the recording process, but the music still comes across with great clarity -- and that definitely describes the unmistakable sound of Maureen's voice arising out of the stillness at the beginning of the fourth movement.

I had to wait about 4 more years, but at last I got the chance to hear her sing that symphony live at Massey Hall, under the direction of Andrew Davis.  My subscription seat was right down in the third row of the ground level, and left of the aisle  -- directly facing the spot where most soloists sit and stand in a concert.  When she began to sing the Urlicht fourth movement, her voice was so quiet and inward that it seemed impossible anyone behind me could hear her -- but I knew perfectly well they could.  I can never forget the airborne "lift" of the sound as she leaped up an octave on the word "Himmel" ("heaven") and her voice took wing.  And it was a clean lift -- no scooping or sliding up to the note.  Pure magic.

During those same high school and college years, I also heard her sing the Third Symphony of Mahler and then the miraculous Das Lied von der Erde.  I can't recall if she actually sang from a score in the hour-long Das Lied, but I've never forgotten the long sustained closing notes, as she sang more and more quietly, in an absolutely steady voice, with one hand slowly lifting farther into the air in front of her at each reiteration of the word ewig ("ever").  I was captivated.

I also heard Maureen singing Bach, Handel, and several other composers during those years, and she was just as memorable every time.

My one and only face-to-face encounter with her came in the spring of 1978, when I was singing in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (one unforgettable season).  We were performing a concert of two rare and fantastic pieces, the Spring Symphony by Benjamin Britten and the Te Deum by Hector Berlioz.  Maureen was one of the soloists in the Britten, and excellent as ever.  At the intermission, she unexpectedly appeared in the choir's "green room", a cavernous space under the stage of Massey Hall.  Immediately she was swarmed by choristers hoping to get her autograph -- myself included.

I've never forgotten what happened next.  After signing six or seven programmes, she looked around, and said, "What am I doing?  I didn't come down here to do this! (pause) But I LOVE IT!"  And instantly, she seized another programme and carried right on as before.  I still have that autograph tucked away in a safe place.

After I moved away from Toronto later that year, I did not get to hear her singing live as often, but I collected a number of different recordings of her singing in both lieder and concert works.  And then, in 1984, Maureen Forrester was cast to sing the role of the Queen of the Fairies in Iolanthe at the Stratford Festival.  This, for me, was a do-not-miss event.  Iolanthe is my absolute favourite of all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.  I'd been in a youth choir production in my Toronto days, playing the role of the pompous Lord Mountararat.  The thought of a good dose of Stratford G&S shenanigans with Maureen Forrester appearing in it was irresistible!

So was the show, when I got to see it.  The antics she got up to, with dancing, singing, dialogue with face and gestures creating raunchy innuendoes, sailing across the flies on a trapeze, and riding in on a wagon dressed like Britannia, complete with spear, helmet and breastplate -- all of it had me in stitches.  Later on it was shown on CBC TV and I laughed myself silly at her, all over again.  And then I acquired the show from the Stratford Festival gift shop, on DVD, and now I can have a good hearty laugh any time I feel like it just by skipping straight to her rapturous ode, O, Knowlton Nash.

And through it all, that unique voice -- rich, deep, pure, never thick or plummy or veiled in any way, a real contralto and still the finest I have ever heard singing live.  I've listened to many great singers performing Mahler, live or in recordings, but for me the altos (Mahler's favourite voice type) divide into just two groups:  [1]  Maureen Forrester (2) Everyone else.  And that's how I will always remember Maureen -- as the true "voice of Gustav Mahler."